No Tea, But Sympathy

At Forget Me Not we traded in antiques of middling quality: coronation plates and fin de siècle purses. Pauline Rennie was the owner. I was her only employee. Together we sold oval portraits of phthisic women, doomed to die young. I was young myself.

Nobody wanted to buy the Victorian table and chairs, set for a tea never served. But certain women customers flung themselves into those chairs, banged their elbows on the table, slid their fingers over their brows and burst into tears. Then they talked.

Faithless men, disappointing children, unsteady bank accounts — these were the topics. I heard racy particulars. A betrayed wife fell in love with her own detective; her husband caught them in flagrante delicto. A son quit law school to become a gag writer; his mother went into seclusion, creeping out only to Rennie's.

Rennie produced a decanter of sherry. The customer regained her equanimity. Later, when we were alone, Rennie herself grew talkative. One day she told me the things she'd sell if she could get enough cash to buy them: brocaded fauteuils and Irish coffeepots. "Cabochon-cut garnets," she moaned, banging her elbows on the table. "Chinese vases," she said, feeling her brow.

Mrs. Ned, estranged wife of a judge, was one of our regulars. She dressed like a derelict. One morning she thrust an object into Rennie's hand. Rennie looked down at a cigarette case covered with tortoiseshell and rimmed in gold. She used her loupe. She sighed. "Exquisite."

"It stands between me and desolation," said Mrs. Ned, her mouth working in her twitching face. Her eyes maintained a steady ferocity. "The judge has turned off my utilities, disavowed my bills, compiled an inventory of mental anguish. What will you give for this bibelot?"

"This is a Fabergé," said Rennie. "I can't afford it." She held the case out to Mrs. Ned. Mrs. Ned refused it. The lid flew open. Mrs. Ned selected a cigarette. After a moment Rennie also took one. They tipped their ashes into a millefiori ashtray. "Rennie, this item stands between me and deso—"

"It is worth three thousand," said Rennie. "I wish I had three thousand. New York dealers would pay—"

"Three hundred is all I will take for the devil's gift."

Rennie acquiesced. Mrs. Ned left, lumbering toward her house, her mind as disconnected as her electricity. That husband — had he loved her when she was frivolous and pretty?

I washed the ashtray in our bathroom. Rennie would travel by train to New York. She'd get off at Grand Central. She'd walk to a dealer on Madison Avenue. There she'd turn the Fabergé. into enough cash to start trading at last in cabochon-cut garnets and Chinese vases.

I waited in vain for Rennie to go to New York. After a few weeks, Mrs. Ned reappeared. "Rennie! The judge has got religion, he is paying my bills, he has given me cash. I want to repurchase my Fabergé."

Rennie opened her safe and handed the case to Mrs. Ned. "Three hundred, right?" said Mrs. Ned, counting out six fifties.

"Right," said Rennie, taking them.

Mrs. Ned's head became still. "You are an honest toiler in the land of Mammon," she said. "I hope this young fool" — she did not look at me, but there was no other young fool in the shop — "has learned something from your example." Muttering peaceably, she made her way out. Rennie busied herself with paperwork. I brought out the sherry.

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